I recently saw the French film J’Accuse with my French wife, in my French hometown of Meudon. My reasons for noting the peripheral French details will be evident below. This is a film by Roman Polanski based on a novel, An Officer and a Spy by British author Robert Harris. It is mostly about Lieutenant-Colonel Marie-Georges Picquart, the French Army counterintelligence chief who eventually proved that the Jewish captain, Alfred Dreyfus, had been falsely accused and wrongly convicted of spying for Germany. Here is a good review of the novel by the historian Steven Englund.
If you know nothing about the Dreyfus affair it is worth some effort to learn about this prototype of a modern scandal. It includes the deep state, murder, a prison “suicide,” political maneuvering, and even a duel (too bad they don’t still exist, imagine Trump vs. Schiff). The French film title comes from the headline of the Dreyfusard article by the novelist Émile Zola that accuses several members of the military and the government of malfeasance.
I agree with Peter Hitchins that this is a well made historical film. Virtually all of the actors look like the real characters they portrayed. Working in France I see still today the physical style of the dossiers (folders) depicted in the film. Some details that I found illustrated in the superannuated Petit Journal include the great first scene of the public denunciation of Dreyfus in the courtyard of the Ecole Militaire (recreated by the Chuck Connors TV series Branded), the duel between Colonel Picquart and Lieutenant-Colonel Henry, and the attack in the street by the real spy Major Esterhazy.
My wife is a journalist so feels obliged to state her faith in journalism as a profession. She rolls her eyes when I frequently state my disbelief in modern mainstream journalism and the various conspiracies they coverup or are actively engaged in. So after the film, I asked her the provoking question “Do you think there was a conspiracy against Dreyfus?” Upon her positive response, I said: “So then you do believe in conspiracy theories.” She rolled her eyes again.
The film is controversial in France because a series of accusations against Polanski have recently been added to the famous accusation against him in the United States of sexually violating a 13-year-old girl. The most relevant now is by Valentine Monnier, who accused Polanski of a violent rape at his chalet in Switzerland in 1977 when she was 18-years-old. The timing of her accusation coincided with the release of the new film precisely because she could not stomach the irony of her experience with the title. Some of my wife’s female friends have refused to see the film so I was kind of proud that she wanted to see it. Hitchens said it has resulted in very limited showings in Britain.
I think Polanski is probably guilty of these accusations. Nonetheless, there are some extenuating circumstances in his history. Polanski was actually born in Paris and returned to Poland in 1937. Imagine that choice for a Jewish family. He survived the Holocaust but his mother died in Auschwitz. Years later his pregnant wife was murdered in his home by the crazed Manson cult. Furthermore, he lived in wild Laurel Canyon in the 60s and 70s when the whole point was to be free to do whatever you felt like, especially sexually. Quite a life!
The Dreyfus affair was a seminal event in French history so seeing J’Accuse in France in the original F Amazon.com Gift Card i... Buy New $10.00 (as of 08:25 EST - Details) rench language gives it special meaning. The ultimate result of the case is summarized by a French educational website, with a Google translation following:
L’affaire Dreyfus constitua une véritable épreuve pour la Troisième République car cette simple affaire d’espionnage devint une crise politique majeure à cause de son caractère antisémite. Cette affaire opposait des idées politiques très différentes. Mais le plus grand chantier que connut la Troisième République fut celui qui permit le triomphe de la laïcité en excluant l’Eglise catholique de l’exercice de tout pouvoir politique ou administratif.
The Dreyfus affair constituted a real test for the Third Republic because this simple affair of espionage became a major political crisis because of its anti-Semitic character. This case opposed very different political ideas. But the biggest project that the Third Republic experienced was that which allowed the triumph of secularism by excluding the Catholic Church from the exercise of any political or administrative power.
My understanding has been similar, that the reactionary, anti-Semitic army staff framed Dreyfus. But it was never clear for what reason the army pressed the case, even after watching the film. Dreyfus himself was a very minor character before the accusation and even after he was exonerated. When freed he just rejoined the army and served in WWI. Thus, the conspiratorial, reactionary, anti-Semitic, anti-Dreyfusards lost in this scandal resulting in the reform which excluded the Catholic Church from state power. But in a recent article by Paul Gottfried, I was surprised to read the following paragraph where I have put one sentence in bold.
In 2016, I teamed up with another paleoconservative, Boyd Cathey, and a paleo-libertarian, Walter Block, in collecting the names of academics for a declaration of support for then-candidate Trump. Our list was taken over by the West Coast Straussian website American Greatness, whose editorial board proceeded to delete our names before posting the document. The vanished names were hardly an oversight, any more than when the anti-clericalist French command after the Dreyfus Affair removed from consideration for promotion the name of every officer seen walking into a church on Sunday. The West Coast Straussians undoubtedly remembered which side we took when Southern conservative literary scholar M.E. Bradford tangled with their mentor Harry V. Jaffa. They, not we, were in a position to make their displeasure known.
Was the French command really anti-cleric? Did they totally change their pre and post Dreyfus positions on the Church? Or did they get what they really wanted from the Dreyfus affair completely opposite to what I had thought? Was it really all a setup like the Scopes trial?
This is not an accusation, but if by some chance Prof. Gottfried reads this article I would be interested to know the background history of the French army’s thoughts on the Catholic Church throughout this period.